To reach vulnerable students, we must lighten guidance counselor caseloads

By David McGuire

I was one of the lucky ones who went through high school and didn’t really need the help of my counselor. I attended a large high school with roughly 3,000 students, so our counselors were stretched extremely thin.

My -meetings with my counselor were routine. We met during my freshman year to make sure my four-year schedule was set, and then again in my junior year to take SAT and ACT, and finally my senior year to discuss my graduation and post-secondary options. I am sure we had meetings in between then, but those are the ones I remember.

I was lucky that I had support outside school. But for many students, especially in Indiana, personalized attention from their high school counselor can mean the difference between graduating and dropping out. Chalkbeat Indiana recently posted a story about how school counselors are overwhelmed and many students are falling through the cracks. As the story pointed out:

The average Indiana school counselor is responsible for 634 students, ranking the state among the worst in the country for counselor workload.
The cost to the state of that workload is enormous…
As Indiana pushes for more students, especially those from poor families, to complete a college degree or technical training that will help them get valuable jobs, the stakes are high. Advocates say having too-few counselors is one of the biggest barriers holding students back.

My teaching experience at Thomas Carr Howe showed me how valuable school counselors are in supporting students. The counselors we had at my time at Howe were incredible. They did more than just deal with scheduling, graduation, and credit recovery. They served the role of social worker, therapist, and even disciplinarian. Those counselors were invaluable members of our school team. They were often the difference between students giving up completely and continuing. During my first year at Howe we had a high school counselor with a background in mental health and counseling.

I had this one particular student who I really wanted to reach. Quran was incredibly smart, but at an early age she was forced to be on her own. She was a 19-year-old senior who had a rough upbringing and was in her second year of senior year. She was living on her own and working 40-plus hours a week to keep a roof over her head. She had so much potential that I really wanted her to see in herself.

We were closing down the first semester and she had to pass every class that semester just to give her a chance at graduating in the spring. I remember she came to my classroom and told me she was thinking about giving up and dropping out. Her job manager offered a position that would allow her to work more hours, and she said she would rather do that with the hope to move up in the company.

I sent her down to see her counselor, Mrs. Hoyer, because she seemed as though her mind was completely made up. What transpired in her office was something that I know changed Quran’s life.

The next day she comes to my class, and I asked her what happened. We sat and talked during my free period, and she explained how meeting with Mrs. Hoyer helped her so much. She said for the first time in school she felt like someone was listening to her, and she was able to explain what was going on in her life that led her to drop out.

Mrs. Hoyer explained the pros and the cons of dropping out of high school and walked her through the process of finishing—and made her realize that she was a lot closer than she thought. Leaving that meeting with the counselor, Quran felt rejuvenated and motivated to finish the year strong and accomplish a goal that no woman in her family had accomplished yet.

Quran was one of the lucky ones because she got personalized attention from our school counselor before making a decision that would have drastically changed her life. She eventually graduated from high school and enrolled in classes at Ivy Tech Community College.

We need to hire more counselors and lighten their loads so they have more time to devote to students who too often fall through the cracks. 

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David McGuire

Mr. McGuire is a middle school teacher in Indianapolis, Teach Plus Policy Fellow, and currently enrolled in a doctoral program at Indiana State University for Educational Leadership. Driven by the lack of having an African American male teacher in his classrooms growing up, David helped launched the Educate ME Foundation, which is geared towards increasing the number of African American male teachers in the classroom. A born and raised Hoosier, he is dedicated to improving educational outcomes for all students in Indianapolis. He describes his educational beliefs as a reformer grounded in the best practices of traditional public schools, where he was mentored by strong leaders. David graduated from Central State University with a degree in English and also holds an MBA from Indiana Wesleyan University.